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And then there were six – Pennsylvania’s lost town close to extinction

April 2017

The population in Centralia, Pennsylvania, in the heart of anthracite coal region, dropped to only six people in the fall of 2016 when Kathi Wormer, daughter of the Borough’s last official Mayor, Carl Womer, moved out of the house once occupied by her parents.

The home at 102 East Wood Street, originally occupied by Carl and Helen Womer, was only a few hundred feet from Odd Fellows Cemetery where the legendary Centralia coal-mine fire started in 1962.

In May 1962, the Centralia Fire Company conducted a controlled burn of the garbage in the town dump, a former strip-mine pit on the south-east side of town.  Unfortunately, the fire was not fully extinguished and an unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.  Attempts to extinguish the fire over the next several months failed.

Over the next 2 decades, numerous attempts were made to extinguish and then contain the fire, but all failed.  Life in the town became very hazardous with carbon monoxide-filled smoke billowing out of cracks in the ground and later specially placed smokestacks designed to “safely” vent the gases.  Occasionally a subsidence would open up, one almost swallowing a 12 year-old boy.

Initially, most of the residents voluntarily left, with their homes being bought up by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through a re-location program.  The vacant homes were then demolished, leaving increasingly large chunks of the borough as empty lots.  However, a die-hard group refused all incentives to leave their beloved Centralia.

By 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey’s government invoked the right of Eminent Domain, which revoked the ownership of all remaining buildings and homes from the residents and condemning them.  All of the approximately 60 remaining residents were ordered to vacate their homes and leave town but some still refused to leave.

Lawsuits filed by the remaining residents occupied the next 2 decades, culminating in Governor Ed Rendell issuing a formal eviction notice to the remaining residents of Centralia.

Then in a sudden turn of events on 31 October 2013, the remaining residents settled their lawsuit with the state government, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and being granted permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live, after which their homes will revert to the state and be demolished.

Unfortunately for Kathi, she has no rights to her parent’s house and was forced to move out.  Under terms of a settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 2013, upon Carl’s death the following year, the home reverts to the Commonwealth and will now be demolished, leaving only 5 other houses, a work garage and the municipal building standing.

Not long after the fire started, Helen Womer became involved in lobbying the state and federal officials to do something to extinguish the fire.  Attempts were made but all failed due to everything from excessive bureaucracy to downright incompetence

There has even been suggestion over the years that the fire was purposely allowed to keep burning so that the residents would have to move out, allowing interested mining companies to harvest the coal that lay under the Borough.

In the wake of a $42 million federal general relocation plan that allowed the residents to sell their homes to the government, the Womers were among the residents who refused the initially voluntary buy-out and fought to stay in the town that they loved.  Even as neighbour after neighbour sold their homes to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which were then torn down leaving nothing but empty, now overgrown lots and empty streets, the Womers held firm in their desire to stay.

In fact, today the Womer residence is the last house on Wood Street.

Carl Womer would later serve as the last official mayor of Centralia and lived in the Borough most of his life.

Womer served in World War II with the U.S. Army’s 274th Infantry of the 70th Division during World War II, participating in the Central Europe and Rhineland campaigns.  He was discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Womer worked as a machinist with Rockwell Industries in Reading, Pennsylvania for more than 25 years, retiring in 1987.

Helen Womer passed away in 2001 and Carl in 2014 at the age of 90. He was buried with military honors beside Helen in in St. Ignatius Cemetery, on the other side of Locust Street from his old home.

Kathi remained in the residence until the fall of 2016, when she left the family home for the last time.

More than 50 years after the mine fire began, its impact is still being felt today.

Update:  The Womer residence is gone.  Carl Womer’s house was torn down in the summer of 2017 and one would never know there was ever a house on the property.

Additional reading on Centralia:  https://militarybruce.com/the-town-that-washttps://militarybruce.com/the-great-american-clean-up-volunteers-clean-up-illegal-dumping-in-centralia.

Sources:  http://www.centraliapa.org/centralia-loses-another-resident-home-abandoned/, http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsitem/obituary.aspx?pid=171129868, personal observations of the author (2017)

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/and-then-there-were-four-pennsylvanias-lost-town-close-to-extinction/

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